In battle of bigs versus small, undersized Gophers prevail for big win
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MINNEAPOLIS - On his radio show Monday night (heard weekly on 1500ESPN - don't miss it!), Gophers head coach Richard Pitino told the story of a phone call he recently made to Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
From 2007 through last spring, Stevens was the boyish head coach at Butler University. He replaced Doc Rivers in Boston last summer, not long after Pitino had become the boyish head coach at the University of Minnesota.
Twice during his tenure at Butler, Stevens had taken the Bulldogs to Hawaii for a November tournament. As recently as last year, Butler had gone 2-1 in the Maui Invitational, defeating Marquette and North Carolina before falling to Illinois in the championship game.
While preparing to take his first Gophers team to the same tournament, Pitino called up Stevens to ask for his advice on how to handle the trip.
(Aside: One of the most admirable traits young Pitino has displayed in the past six months is his willingness to look beyond his father's ample shadow to round out his basketball education. Not that he'll turn down advice from the old man, and surely he relies on his dad for frequent guidance. But when he wanted to discuss best practices for a trip to Maui, he turned to a coach from his own generation who had been there last year. He seems to understand that coattails will get you only so far.)
According to Pitino, Stevens' advice on handling Hawaii boiled down to three key points: get there as early as possible, get out of there as soon as you can, and schedule a D-II or D-III team for your first game back.
Last year, Butler eased back into life on the mainland with a 24-point blowout of D-III Hanover College. Sadly, the Gophers had no such luxury this year.
The opponent on Tuesday night was Florida State. The rugged Seminoles entered the game with a 5-2 record that featured an 18-point blowout of VCU and Shaka Smart (remember him?), followed by a two-point overtime loss to Michigan and a one-point loss at Florida. Their front line featured 7-foot-3 Boris Bojanovsky, 6-9 Okaro White and 6-9 Robert Gilchrist for starters. Off the bench came Michael Ojo, a 7-1, 292-pound specimen seemingly forged from steel and muscle. This was not a team to be taken lightly.
This was not D-III Hanover.
But the Gophers responded with a 71-61 victory, the first signature victory in the nascent Pitino era. They did it with grit on the boards, dynamic guard play, and not a little bit of successful planning by Pitino and his staff, thanks in part to that phone call to Stevens.
"If I didn't call him, I might have stayed in Maui an extra day or two," Pitino said after the game. "He said to get out of there as quick as possible, so we took a red-eye back, we gave them off Thanksgiving, and we were pretty good at just being smart about what times we were practicing and not wearing them out too much physically. They didn't look tired at all tonight, so we did our job there."
After watching Syracuse slip away in the final minutes in their Maui opener, then blowing a halftime lead to Arkansas the next day, the Gophers weren't about to let Florida State sneak up on them.
"We knew coming in this was going to be a big one for us," point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. "Coach reinforced with us that when tournament time comes, this is going to be a tournament team. We watch ESPN. We've seen them play. Everybody's talking about how big they are and how good they are. It's a big win, our first big win. We let Syracuse get off. This feels good to get a quality win over a good team."
Mathieu was a huge part of two plays that turned the game. With less than 2 minutes to play and the Gophers clinging to a 64-60 lead, Mathieu drove the lane against the 7-3 Bojanovsky. Despite seeing two of his earlier attempts swatted away by the Seminoles' giant, Mathieu kept at it and was rewarded for his persistence. His scoop shot dropped through the hoop, starting a game-ending 7-1 run that sealed it for Minnesota.
"He was kind of frustrating me," Pitino said. "I said, 'How many times are you going to get blocked before you stop going in there?' But he ... showed a lot of leadership and kept attacking."
According to Mathieu, it's part of his game that he's not going to change, no matter who's waiting for him in the lane.
"Coach tells me to attack the basket and I just love to attack the basket and try to get fouls," Mathieu said. "I should have kicked it out a little more but I just had to keep going at him. Eventually I was going to score.
"At 5-9, no doubt I have to be as fearless as possible, the most fearless player on the court."
Early in the second half he showed more touch than guts when hooking up with Austin Hollins on a remarkable alley-oop that brought down the house at Williams Arena. Mathieu dribbled behind his back to avoid a defender in his own end, crossed the midcourt stripe and heaved a pass to the rim that Hollins grabbed and slammed through to give the Gophers their largest lead at 43-28.
The crowd gave Pitino his first taste of the raucous atmosphere that's made The Barn historically one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten.
"I thought it was awesome. Now I know why so many people say this could be one of the best home-court advantages in all of college basketball," Pitino said. "They were great, and I think we may not have played with as much energy if we didn't have that crowd behind us. Our fans were awesome. To be able to have that type of a crowd night in and night out is something that we don't take for granted. "